I was not old enough to watch “Love and Basketball” when it premiered seventeen years ago in April 2000. I was almost five and was thriving in things like reading, writing my name, and being able to tie my shoes; I was nowhere close to being old enough to watch this movie, let alone understand the significance of the story it was telling. At some point my mom had bought the DVD because as I got older I remember seeing the cover in our entertainment center and being intrigued. A movie about basketball, which is my favorite sport? I seriously wanted to know why couldn’t I watch it. I remember thinking to myself, “My parents let me watch ’Space Jam’ and this can’t be that different, right?” But being the smart person that she is, my mom told me that I could watch it when I was older. That was not good enough. I needed to know exactly when. “When you’re thirteen,” she simply replied. Thirteen. I could wait until then.
Fast forward to June 2008. I was finally, finally old enough to watch “Love and Basketball.” I made my mom watch it with me just a couple of days after my thirteenth birthday. I couldn’t wait anymore and it did not disappoint in the slightest. The many themes, from gender inequality in sports to women being judged for being too athletic and masculine to having to choose between a career in sports and having a family and everything in between, was something I found to be powerful even at the age of thirteen. The basic underlying message? Anything boys can do, girls can also do and do better.
Since then, I have watched this movie more times than I can even fathom; it has without a doubt become my favorite movie of all time. I would even argue that the narrative is one of the most important ones that I have ever watched. Here’s why:
For those who are not familiar with the movie, it tells the story of Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan), a tomboyish ball player who has the pure skills and determination needed to play at the professional level. Her problem is that she struggles to reconcile her aggressive style of play on the court with her off-the-court female sensibility. This problem also extends to her relationship with Quincy McCall (Omar Epps). McCall, the son of an NBA player and an aspiring professional ball player himself, expects Monica to put him above all else, including ball, when they eventually start dating.
The thing I love the most about this movie is that the romance between Monica and Quincy comes second to the love Monica has for working to fulfill her dream of playing basketball, which just so happens to be a field dominated by only men at the time. In fact, gender equality issues in sports becomes the main conflict in their romance. Quincy does not understand Monica’s struggles with basketball during their time in college, not just because as the son of a professional basketball player he’s had it easy, but because he is male and has the option to play ball professionally in the country.
The context of what was happening with women’s professional basketball at the time is important to remember; the WNBA did not exist when Monica went off to college. Her only option for playing at the professional level is to go overseas, which she eventually does. This is not something that Quincy, who is focused on making it to the NBA like his father through most of the movie, would have ever considered because he didn’t have to. This divide is ultimately what ends their relationship in the middle of the movie.
But Monica is a female protagonist who succeeded both on and off the court without having to compromise who she was an athlete. At the end of the film, she was ultimately rewarded, not punished, for her choices and sticking to the person that she was. The movie’s final scene shows Monica being called in the starting line-up of a WNBA game as a member of the Los Angeles Sparks. Completely flipping the cliche, the camera pans to the front row where Quincy is sitting courtside with their daughter.
In a Buzzfeed article, the film’s writer and director Gina Prince-Bythewood said, “Honestly, I never set out to write a feminist mantra. I wanted to put out in the world that we could have it all. I wanted to destroy the negative perception of the female athlete. I wanted to counter the stereotype of a female athlete. And I know how I was, and who these women around me were, and it wasn’t what I was seeing in the media and television and film. I want and deserve the career and love, and you can have both. It doesn’t need to be a choice.”
Even though the issue of gender equality in sports is arguably the main conflict, the movie does not preach at you about equality for women in sports; it simply presents you Monica’s life, including her struggles surrounding becoming a professional basketball player, and lets the viewer make their own decision about what is right and wrong.
The thing that continues to bug me every time I watch it is that this movie premiered seventeen years ago yet today, in 2017, we still see a drastic disparity in equality for women, especially in sports.
In the realm of sports, women have made immense progress in the past seventeen years. But it still isn’t enough. In the last year, we’ve seen members of the US Women’s National Soccer Team fighting for equal pay, players in the WNBA fighting for relevance and coverage, and strong female athletes like Brittney Griner and Serena Williams being scrutinized and criticized for being too masculine. These are just a few of the trials and tribulations that women in the world of sports face every single day.
This gender inequality in sports even exists in Hollywood. When you talk about sports movies, most would assume that you are talking about movies that feature men in the lead role. Why? There are only a handful of movies that focus on female athletes and the ones that do, such as “A League of Their Own,” are the exception. The only recent example I can think of is the FOX television show “Pitch,” but even that might be canceled soon due to low viewership.
This is why this movie is so important, even seventeen years later. It is one of the very few examples in pop culture of a female athlete being able to succeed and be happy with their lives both on and off the court. As an almost twenty-two year old young woman who is getting ready to navigate the challenges of the “real world,” I find myself seeing different parts of who I am and the struggles I face in Monica every time I watch “Love and Basketball,” even though I have no desire to become a professional basketball player. I know that I can watch it twenty years from now and still find ways to relate to Monica.
“It is a feminist movie,” Lathan said in a Buzzfeed article. “It’s a new classic now. When I say classic, I mean something that stands the test of time and also crosses cultural lines. I’ve had had old Asian men come up to me and be like, ‘I love Love and Basketball.’ It stands.”